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Meet the Winners of the 2019 Breakthrough Awards in Life Sciences

 While the tech innovations constantly changing the healthcare sphere are undoubtedly impressive, it’s important to remember the hardworking people behind the curtain - that’s where the Breakthrough Prize comes in.

Formed by tech giants such as Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan in 2012, the Breakthrough Prize is an international set of awards built to recognize and reward the talented revolutionaries of life sciences, mathematics and fundamental physics.

In a ceremony considered the “Oscars of Science” with celebrity guests such as Pierce Brosnan, Lupita Nyong’o and Zoe Saldana, laureats are presented with a trophy along with a generous three million dollar check.

For the life sciences category, the 2019 Breakthrough Prize was recently awarded to four different discoveries that the board describes as “transformative advances toward understanding living systems and extending human life.

Angelika Amon, one of the winners of the 2019 Breakthrough Prizes in Life Sciences, says that new ideas must be able to pass “the grandma test” in order to grab her attention; the best ideas are those which are easily explainable to anyone, even your grandmother.

This year, the winners were:


Dr+C+Frank+Bennett+2019+Breakthrough+Prize+Oew-h7eNIsolC. Frank Bennett and Adrian R. Krainer from Ionis Pharmaceuticals and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory respectively, for their treatment for spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), which is the leading genetic cause of infant death.

Krainer, a biologist, and Bennett, a pharmacologist, joined together in 2004 to expand on their individual efforts on antisense tech and ribonucleic acid (RNA) splitting to fight SMA. Their antisense therapy drug is called Nusinersen, known commercially as Spinraza, and will save the lives of thousands of children who would have died before their second birthday.

Nusinersen is also currently in development for use in counteracting familial dysautonomia (FD), glioblastoma and liver cancer, and it has inspired gene silencing solutions to help with Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, ALS, Alzheimer’s and spinocerebellar ataxias.



 Angelika Amon from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Howard Hughes Medical Institute for the investigation of the interaction of cancer and aneuploidy (the event in which there are too many or too few chromosomes).

We already know that abnormal chromosome numbers have potential consequences including Down Syndrome and miscarriage. However, through her research Amon developed a deeper understanding of how aneuploidy plays a role in cancer evolution. She found that chromosome number irregularities cause a stress response in cells which results in an error in the internal repair system. This breakdown then allows for genetic mutations to very easily occur and multiply.

Considering 80% of all cancers have too many or too few chromosomes, this discovery will likely have a tremendous impact on how we attempt to defeat cancer in the future.




 Zhijian Chen from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for finding the DNA-sensing enzyme cGAS, which in turn tells us how DNA sets off immune and autoimmune responses inside a cell.

When the body detects threatening DNA, the T-cells and white blood cells are activated to spur an onslaught, sometimes to an inappropriately strong degree. Chen’s new understanding of this process could be a major factor in how we treat everything from cancer to arthritis.

As we learn more about how instinctive immune and autoimmune functions work we can exploit the body’s natural healing forces for certain diseases while stopping over-deployment of these powerful attacks for others, such as lupus.



 Xiaowei Zhuang from Harvard University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute for the invention of a super-resolution imaging method (STORM) made to share high-quality images of cellular structures.

Regular microscopes have a diffraction limit that does not hinder Zhuang’s STORM. In fact, STORM can see cell parts 10,000x smaller than the width of a human hair!

The super-resolution imaging method uses switchable fluorescent molecules to identify never-before-seen cell structures like the periodic membrane skeleton present in neurons in the brain.



“The winners of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Science show us all how it’s done,” said Cori Bargmann, chair of the selection committee and R&D Magazine’s 2017 Scientist of the Year. “Through creativity, innovation, persistence, and skill, each of them brought about an advance that was previously unimaginable.”

Congratulations to C. Frank Bennett, Adrian R. Krainer, Angelika Amon, Zhijian Chen, Xiaowei Zhuang and the countless dedicated team members who assisted in their valuable efforts.